Change We Can Taste

Bush’s White House served terrible wine. Obama should do better.

With an economy in crisis and two wars to prosecute, Barack Obama will have lots on his plate when he becomes president on Jan. 20. But it would be a great service to the nation, to say nothing of his own palate, if he and Michelle Obama could also give some consideration to what will be in his glass. The White House needs a new wine policy. Sure, having a commander in chief who actually drinks wine will be a big improvement. However, it won’t be enough. During the Bush era, wine service at the executive mansion has been hostage to a profoundly misguided strategy that has turned this most civilized of beverages into an unnecessarily crude instrument of statecraft. Candidate Obama promised change we can believe in; here’s an opportunity to deliver change we can taste.

As with so much else, the Bush administration has given Obama the opening he needs to act swiftly and boldly on the wine front. During November’s emergency economic summit in Washington, the White House poured the 2003 Shafer Hillside Select at a dinner for the world leaders in attendance. The Hillside Select is one of the so-called Napa cult cabernets; it is made in small quantities (1,800-2,400 cases per year), receives gushing scores from Robert Parker and other critics, and commands hefty sums as a result. The 2003 goes for around $250 a bottle. Although the White House said that it paid wholesale, the fact that it opened such an extravagant wine at a gathering intended to avert a global economic meltdown caused widespread indignation.

With the bitter taste of Shafer-gate lingering in the mouths of many Americans, Obama has a chance to take the White House wine program in a new direction. The need for a change of course was made shockingly clear in a recent interview that Daniel Shanks, who handles wine duties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., gave to Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy. According to Shanks, the White House currently stocks around 500-600 bottles. That is pathetic and another example of how America’s infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. During his eight years in office, Thomas Jefferson amassed a 20,000-bottle collection, which he kept in a cellar that he had built under what is now the West Wing. Two centuries later, that space is being used for other purposes, and the president of the United States has less wine in his basement than I have in mine.

Even more dismaying, though, was what Shanks revealed about the process of choosing wines for state dinners. He told McCoy that because only 55 minutes are allotted for the actual meal, it is essential that the wines served on these august occasions “have presence.” And what did he mean by “presence”? “A perfectly aged cabernet may be great in the glass,” he explained, “but it can’t stand up to the intense atmosphere of a White House state dinner. You have to have something with youth and vigor.” Delicate wines will be overlooked; only strapping, assertive ones have what it takes to be “noticed in the context of the White House experience,” as Shanks put it. In other words, the desired effect is shock and awe, achieved not with cruise missiles but fruit bombs.

Curious to see what this has meant in practice, I visited the White House Web site, which posts the menus for visiting foreign dignitaries. In October, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined President and Mrs. Bush for dinner, and among the wines broken out that evening was the 2005 Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon reserve. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was served the 2005 Kistler Carneros chardonnay and a 2004 Caymus cabernet when she supped with the first couple in November 2007. Six months earlier, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were given the 2004 Newton unfiltered chardonnay and the 2003 Peter Michael Les Pavots, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma County.

I think this is a pretty unappetizing group of wines. I recently had the ‘05 Mondavi, and drinking it was like sucking on tree bark—it was obnoxiously oaky. Cloying and buttery, the Newton unfiltered epitomizes the overwrought, blowsy style of California chardonnay, and Kistler isn’t far behind. These wines may have presence, but it’s not a presence I want in my mouth. Perusing the menus, I found a few good choices. For instance, when Bush hosted a dinner for French President Nicolas Sarkozy several days before Merkel’s visit, he served the 2004 Dominus, an excellent Napa cabernet (sadly wasted on both men: Sarkozy, like Bush, doesn’t drink). But note the vintages—these wines were hardly out of the barrel when they were opened. This is a disservice to the U.S. wine industry and is probably not doing our foreign policy much good, either. The knock on our wines has always been that they lack finesse and longevity—that they are all about short-term, in-your-face pleasure. In truth, many of them have complexity and elegance, and some can age brilliantly. By limiting his selections to juvenile behemoths, Shanks is perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype about American wines. (American wine drinkers, too—the rap on us is that we only like ‘em young and obvious.)

These bruisers could also be sending an unhelpful subliminal message. Diplomacy is a subtle art, and when it is conducted à table, it requires subtle libations. Mellow wines promote conviviality, encourage reflection, and create goodwill—the very things state dinners are presumably meant to foster. A hulking cabernet that assaults the senses and flattens any food that gets in its way hardly lubricates the path to world peace. Indeed, serving such a wine might even be construed as a sign of hostile intent: Tonight we smash your palate; tomorrow your palace. Shanks was hired by the Clintons, but his preference for slam-dunk wines has been in keeping with the tenor of Bush’s foreign policy—you might even say he’s the vinous George Tenet. For this reason alone, it’s time to put something different in the decanter.

So, what must Obama do? He can start by replenishing the White House cellar. He’s pledged to create or save 3 million jobs over the next two years; he should set a goal of having 3,000 bottles laid away by the end of his first term. An executive branch buying spree will once again give the presidency a wine stash worthy of the office while also making a small but meaningful contribution to the ailing economy. There is no need to load up on trophies like the Hillside Select; there are lots of sensational wines that can be purchased for less money. Indeed, wine prices are now tumbling in response to the financial maelstrom, and amazing deals can be had at auction and retail.

At the same time, a new approach to wine service ought to be implemented at once. The Bloomberg piece indicated that Shanks will be staying on after Jan. 20; if that’s the case, he can now leave the youth and vigor to Obama himself. Henceforth the emphasis should be on maturity and finesse. Instead of the ‘05 Mondavi, make it a wine like the 1996 Château Montelena Estate, a glorious Napa cabernet that will bend even the most obdurate foreign leader to our will (and which can be found these days for less than $100 a bottle).

There is one other change that Obama might consider: lifting the ban on foreign wines at the White House. Under Lyndon Johnson, it was decided that only American wines would be served during official functions, a stricture that remains in place. (Richard Nixon, a Bordeaux man, supposedly got around it by having the waitstaff secretly pour him his beloved Château Margaux; apparently, Tricky Dick was also Tricky Drinker.) Back in the 1960s, the world had no idea that our vineyards were capable of turning out decent wines, so it probably made sense to reserve the stage exclusively for homegrown cabernets and chardonnays. But four decades on, American wines hardly need a presidential seal to certify their worthiness, and it can reasonably be assumed that the politics of the issue has changed, too—a country that just elected a guy named Barack Obama president is unlikely to erupt in nativist anger should a French or Italian wine occasionally grace the White House menu. If a visiting head of state comes from a wine-producing nation, why not uncork something special from his backyard? Treating the Spanish prime minister to a great old Rioja or the Chinese president to an acclaimed boutique merlot from Shanxi province would be the ultimate gesture of respect and might even prove to be a diplomatic masterstroke. Suffice it to say, we could use a few of those.